Sail on, o ship of Johnny Depp
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 20, 2011
Watching “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is to be reminded of 2003, when many skeptics (including yours truly) approached the first installment with a combination of suspicion and outright cynicism. A movie based on a theme park ride? How good could it be?
Plenty good, as it turned out. And in a similar fashion the fourth installment dispels many fans’ trepidation regarding sequels and the diminishing returns they so often represent. The legions of filmgoers who have made the “Pirates” movies such a box office behemoth needn’t worry. “On Stranger Tides” feels as fresh and bracingly exhilarating as the day Jack Sparrow first swashed his buckle, infusing new reckless energy into a franchise that shows no signs of furling its sails.
Anchored by a playfully androgynous Johnny Depp as the ever-cheeky Captain Jack, “On Stranger Tides” marks the return of stock “Pirates” players Geoffrey Rush (as Sparrow’s beloved nemesis Hector Barbossa) and Kevin R. McNally as friend and confederate Joshamee Gibbs. And it welcomes two new characters to the fold who slip into its fanciful, sometimes gently ribald world with uncanny ease: Ian McShane — who, with “Deadwood” and a slew of nasty Brit crime thrillers, has found his niche playing menacingly oleaginous villains — delivers an appropriately ruthless turn as the notorious Blackbeard. And Penelope Cruz — arriving by way of a wittily clever entrance — delivers an appropriately smoldering turn as a mysterious pirate named Angelica, whose storied past with Jack becomes clear in a few neat expository strokes.
In fact, the whole of “On Stranger Tides” could be described as appropriate, clear and neat, as first-time “Pirates” director Rob Marshall swiftly and without fuss delivers the action set pieces and eye-popping escapism the series has come to stand for. Starting with a smartly staged escape from King George’s castle and a rollicking carriage chase through the London streets, “On Stranger Tides” delivers its whammies with metronomic regularity and, on at least two occasions, genuine ingenuity: Marshall, who started life as a choreographer in musical theater, brings those gifts strongly to bear on a stunt in which a mutinous crew is hung by their ship’s lines, swinging and dangling with balletic grace. Later, a group of men watch mesmerized as an ethereal school of mermaids encircles their boat, their sinuous movements enchanting the audience just as seductively. (Note to caretakers of small children: Little ones may find this scene frightening when the fish-ladies turn out to be part piranha.)
As with so many 3-D movies these days, that added technological dimension doesn’t add anything particularly memorable to “On Stranger Tides,” apart from the odd outstretched sword or skeletal hand. But nor does it detract from the movie’s palette and visuals, which are consistently bright, vivid and clean. The result, rather than a series of “watch out!” stunts, is a movie that more closely resembles a spiffy child’s pop-up book, which is altogether appropriate considering its childlike tone and Peter Pan-like protagonist.
Actually, make that Peter Pan with a dash of Keith Richards and the flouncy sashay of a “La Cage aux Folles” refugee. With his dreadlocks, tipsy line readings and kohl eyeliner (can anyone rock a smoky eye like Johnny?), Depp still brings verve and nerve to the role that has solidified his standing as a bona fide international superstar, giving “On Stranger Tides” every campy bit he’s got when a lesser actor would be phoning it in. His commitment and energy extends to the entire production, which unlike so many sequels these days (cough “Sex and the City 2” cough) has put the fans first and given them something both familiar and novel.
Is “On Stranger Tides” great storytelling? Not by a league: Sparrow and his crew spend most of the movie trudging through a verdant jungle looking for the Fountain of Youth. The plot is, well, plotty, sprouting ancillary tendrils and characters with fecund but pointless abandon. Having apparently audited a class at the Michael Bay School of Narrative Structure, Marshall tends to resolve too many scenes with an oncoming fireball.
But those are quibbles; the team behind “On Stranger Tides” should be congratulated for knowing and honoring their core audience, delivering the proper ratio of action, humor, adventure and bodice-ripping they require to feel well served. Depp, Cruz, Marshall — as well as at least one wittily apt cameo performer who shall go nameless — deliver the winning recipe with precision and brio. A fifth movie based on a movie based on a theme park ride? Who’s counting?
Contains intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo.